Neural Synchrony: Understanding the Complex Dance of Brain Communication
Neural synchrony is a fascinating phenomenon that plays a crucial role in how different regions of the brain communicate and coordinate their activities. It refers to the synchronized firing patterns of neurons, creating a harmonious rhythm and facilitating efficient information processing. In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of neural synchrony and explore its significance in cognitive processes.
What is Neural Synchrony?
Neurons in the brain communicate with each other through electrical impulses called action potentials. These electrical signals allow for the transmission of information and coordination of various brain functions. Neural synchrony refers to the coordinated firing of groups of neurons at the same frequency and phase, leading to the formation of neural networks.
Richard J Davidson and Sharon Begley define the process this way: “neural synchrony means that individual neurons across widespread regions of the brain are firing at the same time” (Davidson & Begley, 2012). The significance to synchrony of firing was originally presented by Donald Hebb. Basically, he taught that cells that fire together, wire together. In addition, he proposed that any two cells or systems of cells that are repeatedly active at the same time will tend to become associated, so that activity in one facilitates activity in the other (Hebb, 1949).
Neuronal synchrony refers to the occurrence of neurons and brain networks firing together. A process that increases likelihood that the neurons will fire together under similar circumstances.
Scientist believe that the synchronizing processes play an important role for information processing in the brain (Yu, et al, 2008). Synchronized neuronal activity is crucial for efficient information processing, as it enhances the signal-to-noise ratio and enables the effective transmission of information across the brain. It is believed to underlie various cognitive processes, such as attention, memory, perception, and even consciousness.
While we see life as a unified experience, a lot is occurring underneath our skulls and throughout our bodies to create a integrated perception. We observe an external event through our various senses. Ledoux explains this is a process of various brain systems sharing the same experience. However, he adds, “they encode them differently…they will not always focus on the same details, and each may not always participate in every experience.” LeDoux explains that “in real brains neural networks do not exist in isolation. They communicate with other networks by way of synaptic transmission” (LeDoux, 2003, pp. 307-310).
Daniel Seigel adds to our understanding by explaining, “the mind has layers of representational processes. These are created by various inputs from interactions with others and from more and more complex representational levels within the nervous system. Studies of brain function reveal that neural pathways have such layers of input, in which secondary and tertiary association areas link streams of neural activity into more and more complex networks of activation.” He continues, “the emergence of a unified cognitive moment relies on the coordination of scattered mosaics of functionally specialized brain regions. Here we review the mechanisms of large-scale integration that counterbalance the distributed anatomical and functional organization of brain activity to enable the emergence of coherent behaviour and cognition.” (Seigel, 2020, Kindle location: 8,121).
Synchrony involves both inner network firing of specific cells but may also create cross network associations that fire together as well.
The Mechanisms of Neural Synchrony
Several mechanisms contribute to the emergence of neural synchrony. One of the key mechanisms is the presence of electrical connections between neurons, known as synapses. These synapses allow for the exchange of information and synchronization of activity between neurons in a network.
Another mechanism involves the oscillatory behavior of neurons. Many neurons exhibit rhythmic patterns of activity, generating oscillations at specific frequencies. When neurons within a network synchronize their oscillatory activity, it leads to enhanced communication and coordination among them.
Additionally, neurotransmitters play a vital role in modulating neural synchrony. These chemical messengers can regulate the excitability and synchronization of neurons, influencing the overall network dynamics.
The Role of Neural Synchrony in Cognitive Processes
Neural synchrony is implicated in various cognitive processes, highlighting its importance in brain function. Davidson and Begley explain that Research has “linked the neural synchrony of high-frequency brain waves to mental processes such as attention, working memory, learning, and conscious perception; the suspicion is that by firing in sync, neurons cause far-flung networks to work together, with the result that cognitive and emotional processes become more integrated and coherent” (Davidson & Begley, 2012).
Let’s explore some of the key roles it plays:
Attention and Perception
Synchronized neural activity is essential for attention and perception. Studies have shown that attentional processes involve the coordinated activity of distributed brain regions, allowing for selective processing of relevant information. Neural synchrony facilitates the integration of sensory information and helps filter out irrelevant stimuli, improving our ability to focus on specific tasks.
“In particular, high gamma-wave activity and neural synchrony might be the brain signature of what the Buddhist practitioners themselves report they experience during meditation: a change in the quality of moment-to-moment awareness, bringing with it a vast panorama of perceptual clarity. It is as if a mental fog lifts, one that you did not even realize had been impeding your perception” (Davidson & Begley, 2012).
Basically, practices such as meditation and mindfulness create new patterns of firing which impact perception. Accordingly, these practices soothe networks that are highly aroused, creating a new synchrony of firing, allowing practitioners to better manage stress.
Memory and Learning
Neural synchrony is also crucial for memory formation and learning. During the encoding and retrieval of information, synchronized neuronal networks enable the efficient transfer of data between different brain regions. By establishing temporal relationships between neuronal firing, neural synchrony helps consolidate memories and facilitates the encoding of new information.
Hebb explains that learning always requires that “two central events occur together.” He adds, “It always seems to involve a recombination of familiar perceptions and movements” (Hebb, 1949). The learning, then is the firing together (synchrony) of familiar events creating a new combination and association. Perhaps, it is a process of pulling these different events into working memory at the same time that allows for the association to take place.
An example of this would be Pavlov’s dogs. The dogs undoubtedly have heard bells ring before but not in combination with food. However, when the bell and food were presented repeatedly at the same time, creating a synchrony of firing, they became neuronally associated. The firing of neurons associated with the bell would also fire neurons associated with food, leading to the unlearned response of the dogs salivating at the sound of a bell.
Daniel J. Siegel explains the process of learning from synchrony this way, “neurons that fire together, wire together. In memory terminology, an experience becomes ‘encoded’ by the firing of neurons in groups. The more often these neural clusters, or ‘neural net profiles,’ fire, the more likely they are to fire together in the future” (Siegel, 2009).
LeDoux explains that in all learning is the process of new synaptic connection firing together. The “association are formed by synaptic changes in the brain system involved in processing the stimuli” (LeDoux, 2003, p. 303).
“Synaptic connections are adjusted by environmentally driven neural activity in specific neural systems. When these changes occur during early life, they are said to involve developmental plasticity; when they occur later, they are considered as learning” (2003, p. 307).
Understanding the neural mechanisms underlying consciousness remains a complex challenge. However, brain scientists have proposed that neural synchrony is a potential contributor to the emergence of conscious experience. Synchronized neuronal activity may facilitate the integration of information across widely distributed brain regions, allowing for a unified perceptual experience.
Future Directions and Research
The study of neural synchrony is an active area of research. Scientists continue to investigate its intricate mechanisms and functional significance. Cutting-edge techniques, such as electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), enable the exploration of neural synchrony at different spatial and temporal scales.
By unraveling the complexities of neural synchrony, researchers aim to gain insights into brain disorders such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, and neurodegenerative diseases. Furthermore, if we better understand neural synchrony in pathological conditions, this knowledge may pave the way for potential therapeutic interventions.
Neural synchrony is a fascinating phenomenon that lies at the heart of brain communication and cognitive processes. The coordinated firing of neurons within networks allows for efficient information processing, shaping our perception, attention, memory, and consciousness.
As research progresses, we hope to unlock further mysteries surrounding neural synchrony. This knowledge can open doors to our understanding of the brain and its complex interconnected dance of communication.
Davidson, Richard J.; Begley, Sharon (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—and How You Can Change Them. Avery; 1st edition.
Hebb, Donald (1949/2012). Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory.
LeDoux, Joseph (2003). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Penguin Books.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2020). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2009). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam.